Several weeks ago at a job interview, an employer asked me if I had a favorite story, one that I’m particularly proud to have worked on.
I thought about a recent project I produced regarding flaws in the state’s GPS monitoring system. I couldn’t decide if the story was my favorite or least favorite. I now realize that it’s both.
The project, which took roughly 9 months of work and cost over $500 in open records requests, revealed that Wisconsin offenders are being jailed repeatedly for GPS violations — even though they say they’ve done nothing wrong.
This is how it started. The first tip came in late May, shortly after I was hired as a reporting intern for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. An offender’s family member called our office. His niece, who had been convicted of violating a restraining order, was required to wear a GPS monitor. The problem, the uncle said, was that she was repeatedly jailed and spent days locked up when she was following her rules of supervision.
I was pretty skeptical at first. Clearly, a person could invent such a problem to duck punishment. I knew Wisconsin had a GPS tracking system, but didn’t know much about the way it worked. But after just a few days of research I discovered that the situation wasn’t totally unique; similar issues have been raised in at least 7 other states.
I went to Madison-area Urban Ministry and sat in on a support group for men who had been recently released from prison. I just wanted to see if anyone had heard about the problem. But right there in front of me, a man’s tracking device sounded, indicating he could not be tracked by satellite. I watched him walk to the window and hold his device against the glass. He left the group — a meeting his parole agent had approved — and went outside to find a signal.
In the end, I spoke with over 13 offenders who told me their lives were repeatedly interrupted by GPS tracking. One of the men, Aaron Hicks of Madison, narrowly missed being revoked and sent back to prison due to recurring problems with his tracker.
Experts told me these problems have existed since the inception of GPS tracking. The technology is improving, but issues remain.
Here’s how the tracking system works: Since 2007, the state has required offenders convicted of certain crimes — most of those who make the list are convicted of sexually violent crimes — to wear an anklet at all times. Many of the newer anklets have a built-in GPS device. Those wearing older models must carry an extra, handheld GPS device. This technology communicates with satellites, then sends an offender’s data to a central monitoring center in Madison.
Wisconsin leases its electronic monitoring equipment from Colorado-based BI, Inc. The company’s website warns that the GPS signals sent by the devices can be lost due to rain or fog, in deep canyons or dense vegetation, near large or tall buildings, and “when the offender is riding in a car or other enclosed means of transportation.”
The most challenging part of telling this story, by far, was obtaining information from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Early in my reporting, the DOC’s then-spokesperson told me that, to her knowledge, there have never been problems or complaints with the system. This same woman was quoted in a 2010 story about a nationwide BI server crash that left authorities in 49 states, including Wisconsin, unaware of offenders’ movements.
Stalled open records requests and unreturned phone calls were just a slice of the struggle. At one point, Hicks’ parole agent went so far as to prohibit him from having contact with media. In the end, a friendly letter from our legal counsel helped iron out that particular misunderstanding, but each delay cost time.
Now, the rewarding part. Ten days after our first story went out, lawmakers called a public hearing to discuss the issues raised in our story. The DOC presented a “show and tell,” to members of the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections: DOC spokespeople showed how the devices work (using a model GPS device) and told the committee that all in all, the system was a “very, very useful tool.”
Then, on May 13, Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to withhold more funding requested by the Department of Corrections until the agency produces a detailed plan of how the money will be used in its proposed GPS program expansion. The committee also ordered the department to do a study on the effective and efficient use of GPS monitoring.